U.S. foreign policy: kicking the can down the road

By J. Martin Rochester

Have you noticed the futility of American foreign policy in recent years, spanning several presidencies? All we seem to be doing since the end of the Cold War is “kicking the can down the road.” Secretary of State John Kerry’s current effort to restart the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian peace process is just the latest example of this phenomenon; it is worth trying, but it is unlikely to produce a resolution of the conflict, as the problem will probably be handed off to President Barack Obama’s successor, as will other unmet foreign policy challenges. (Did someone say Syria?)

I recall reading an article in Foreign Affairs (September/October 2008) on the eve of Obama’s election, written by the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke and entitled “The Next President,” in which the author stated that “the next president will inherit a more difficult opening-day set of international problems than any of his predecessors have since at least the end of World War II.” I told students in my U.S. Foreign Policy class at the time that I disagreed with Holbrooke in that, as daunting as the challenges facing the next occupant of the Oval Office would be, they surely were no greater — and arguably considerably lesser — than those faced by presidents from Truman to Reagan during the Cold War, when the U.S. lived with the daily prospect of Armageddon represented by 10,000 Soviet nuclear warheads targeted at the American homeland. I also questioned his putting the onus on George W. Bush as the source of the problems bequeathed to Obama, when most of the problems (North Korean and Iranian nuclear proliferation, al-Qaeda terrorism and others) had themselves been inherited by Bush from Bill Clinton. 

Contrary to Holbrooke’s analysis, the post-Cold War era is not more dangerous than the Cold War era. Thankfully, the nuclear arsenals of both the United States and Russia have each been reduced substantially (to roughly 2,000 warheads each) and are no longer on a hair-trigger targeted at each other. However, the post-Cold War international system is much messier — more complicated — than the Cold War system was, and in some respects problems are harder to solve. No longer are we threatened by a singular enemy, permitting a single buzzword, such as “containment,” to inform our foreign policy as we had in the neat, tidy bipolar system between 1945 and 1989. Now, we have multiple security challenges from rogue states and non-state actors, along with various economic, environmental and other concerns, with no clear compass to guide us and provide overall direction.  

Henry Kissinger perhaps has summarized our predicament best: “The challenge for the United States in the post-Cold War era is to define a role for ourselves in a world which for the first time in our history we can neither withdraw from nor dominate.” Neither isolationism nor superpower hegemony are options today. Thus the U.S. ship of state is in uncharted waters, struggling to achieve foreign policy success on many fronts. 


Pundits have tended to single out George W. Bush for failing miserably at foreign policy, but this is not entirely fair. It was during the Clinton administration that North Korea and Iran first started developing nuclear weapons programs that Washington failed to halt, al-Qaeda first attacked the World Trade Center and bombed U.S. embassies and other targets with little resistance, Somalia and the Horn of Africa grew more violent, Hugo Chavez and other leftist authoritarian regimes reemerged in Latin America, U.S. relations with Russia and China began to sour somewhat over NATO enlargement and American intervention in Kosovo, our European allies criticized us as an arrogant “hyperpower,” and, lest we forget,  Middle East instability, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only worsened with the second intifada and other developments. Yes, Bush started two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, whether of choice or necessity, but these stemmed from the 9/11 attack rooted in the failures of the Clinton administration.

The Obama administration has not done much better. The capture and killing of Osama bin Laden would seem the only signal foreign policy success (although that was achieved through counter-terrorism methods initiated by Bush). We have declared victory in Iraq and Afghanistan and ended the longest wars in American history — we have removed most of our troops from Iraq and have announced a withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014 – even if in fact both countries are being left in shambles and may invite our return. The North Korean, Iran, and terrorism problems still fester. Only Chavez’s death has quieted him, while the Castro brothers remain in Cuba. The Middle East, if anything, is even more unstable today, given the domestic volatility in Egypt and Libya, the civil war in Syria, and other violence. Obama has failed to “reset” our relations with Moscow and Beijing, as evidenced by their refusal to cooperate in handing over NSA-leaker Edward Snowden. There has been little perceptible progress on climate change, improving the world economy, and a host of other issues. And we continue to be “disliked” by much of the world despite Obama’s ostensible appeal. So what’s new?

It is a commentary on our lowered expectations that Hillary Clinton received rave reviews as Secretary of State, even if, as one observer has noted, “she left office without a signature doctrine, strategy, or diplomatic triumph.” Apparently, the new measure of foreign policy success is how many frequent flyer miles one has accumulated – she set a new record for a secretary of state by visiting 112 countries, logging 956,733 miles over 400 days of travel abroad. As with Dubya, in fairness to Hillary Clinton and Obama, one must acknowledge the complex, stubborn nature of the problems our foreign policy establishment has to grapple with. 

Maybe the Kerry Middle East mission will not just kick the can down the road but will produce a successful outcome, although recent history suggests we should not hold our breath. Then again, there is always the audacity of hope.